“Enhancement” Without Resources

I’ve spent much of my pedagogical energy in the past year researching ePortfolio theory and practice, engaging with others who are part of the international ePortfolio community, building my own ePortfolio, and helping my Honors students create and maintain their ePortfolios.  In short, I’ve had ePortfolios on the brain.

At the AAEEBL ePortfolio conference in Boston this past summer, I came to the realization that while I’d been using ePortfolios in my Honors courses because students in the program are required to craft an ePortfolio as part of their program work, that given my pedagogical approach, ePortfolios were actually best practice in all my Writing classes.  Given that my Writing courses are processed-based, framed by inquiry and information literacy, and focus heavily on reflection and the metacognative practice, ePortfolios are a natural extension of what I’ve already been working toward in my classroom for years. ePortfolios also invite students to situate the work they do in my course within their larger academic and personal goals, an important feature of ensuring that they retain the knowledge and skills they’re learning in my class.

I returned from the AAEEBL conference excited at the prospect of incorporating ePortfolios into the pedagogy of all my Writing courses.  I met with several colleagues and talked through some of the ideas I’d brainstormed at the conference on how I might begin revising all my Writing courses to include an ePortfolio component beginning this Fall. I eagerly began revising assignments in my courses to more effectively function in an ePortfolio-based pedagogy, and was looking forward to seeing the ways in which ePortfolios would deepen my students’ learning and metagcognitive practices (as I’d seen them do in my Honors courses), as well as offer students more opportunities to situate their work in my classes in relation to Lane’s Core Learning Outcomes.

And then, we were notified of the course “enhancement” put in place by the college that would increase enrollment in our Writing classes, beginning this Fall.

“Enhancement” seems an ironic word choice to me, given that what the college saw as “enhancing” Writing courses was adding 4 more students to each section. This “enhancement” represented a more than 16% increase in students in each Writing class.  While this may not seem like a significant increase to those outside academia, or even outside the discipline of Composition, I want to take a moment to make the real impact of this increase apparent.  On average, for each student in my Writing classes, I spend at least 3 hours giving feedback on each essay that student writes for my course, as I comment not only on final drafts, but also on earlier drafts in the writing process.  Considering that students write at least three essays each in my courses, this means an increase of at least 9 hours of work per student over the term.  Which results in an increase of at least 36 hours of work in each Writing class I teach. In no way does this additional workload, with no additional time for me to do this work, allow me to “enhance” student learning or my ability to facilitate this learning.

This sudden spike in workload also made me hesitant to introduce a new technology and pedagogical platform required to integrate ePortfolios into my Writing classes. However, after a few days of processing the class “enhancement,” I decided that I could at least begin rolling out ePortfolios in my Writing classes one class at a time.  This would allow me to better manage the additional workload of shifting my pedagogical practice and integrating a new technology into the classroom, while still beginning to roll out ePortfolios, following my belief that this represented best practice in my classes.

And then I found out that while the college was “enhancing” my class sizes, there were no plans in place to “enhance” the classroom spaces on campus to actually accommodate  these additional students.  When I inquired about how the college planned to make space for the additional four students in each of my classes, given that many of the classrooms in which I teach could barely accommodate the number “pre-enhancement” students in each class, I was told that there was no plan in place to “enhance” the classroom space to accommodate these students. I was just supposed to “squeeze” them in wherever I could, in some instances in rooms that didn’t even have an adequate number of chairs, much less work space.

I was also told that in the computer labs in which I and many of my colleagues teach our Writing classes, and in which I would need to teach ePortfolio-based Writing classes, no additional computers would be added to accommodate the four additional students.  I was simply to assume that the “enhancement” would only last the first few weeks of the term, with the expectation that four or more of my students would drop the class by week three.  In the meantime I was supposed to tell four of my students that they were responsible for bringing their own computers to class to fill the “enhancement” gap.  A few people even suggested that students could just use their phones or tablets “which they had anyway” to “replace” the computer they weren’t provided in this “enhanced” classroom, as though working on a phone or tablet was the same as having a computer.

This refusal to “enhance” the classroom space to accommodate the rise in enrollment numbers blocked my ability to begin rolling out ePortfolios in my non-Honors Writing classes, in turn blocking my ability to actually enhance my teaching practices and the learning of my students in my Writing courses through the use of ePortfolios.

Certainly I write about his partly in anger-tinged frustration.  But more so I write about it because it raises a critical issue in the use of ePortfolios in the classroom–the availability of classroom resources.  While I’d certainly considered, and in some cases agonized over, questions of resources in considering the roll out of ePorfolios in my Writing classes, wondering whether I could be an adequate resource for all my students, if the campus had enough technological support resources, and if the WordPress platform I have students use for their ePortfolios offered enough resources and support for students, I must say I never considered whether the college would ensure that I had the basic resources necessary to teach my students in the classroom.  It never occurred to me that I would be asked to teach 28 students in a classroom equipped for only 24.

While I certainly hope that it quickly becomes apparent that the increase in the number of students in Writing classes is in no way an “enhancement” to student learning or success, for right now, I’m left with the dilemma of how to actually continue enhancing student learning without even the most basic of resources in my classroom.  How do I keep working toward increasing student success when the path to what I consider to be best pedagogical practice in my classes is blocked by a policy of “enhancement” without resources?

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